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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

CalTech Energy Researchers In Limbo As Congress Threatens To Chop Spending

Paresh Dave |
February 13, 2011 | 12:10 a.m. PST

Executive Producer

The federal government has given California researchers $122 million to study how to use solar cells to turn sunlight into fuel rather than just electricity. (Creative Commons)
The federal government has given California researchers $122 million to study how to use solar cells to turn sunlight into fuel rather than just electricity. (Creative Commons)

Renewed pressure from Republicans in Congress to gash an ever-increasing budget deficit threatens to erase some of the $100 million the federal government invests annually in solar energy research.

“If we get half as much money, there would be half as much discovery, modeling, development, prototyping,” said California Institute of Technology's Nate Lewis. When all of those individual pieces are added up, Lewis said progress in the emerging area of technology would be severely impacted.

Lewis and his partners at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory won a five-year, $122 million grant in July 2009 to study how to quickly and cheaply turn sunlight into fuel—call it manmade photosynthesis.

President Barack Obama mentioned the project during his State of the Union Address last month as he challenged the country to get 80 percent of its electricity from clean sources by 2035. But budget hawks in Congress and conservative experts label taxpayer-subsidized energy research as nonessential.

“Washington’s spending spree is over,” House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) said last week. “Spending limits will restore sanity to a broken budget process and return spending for domestic government agencies to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels.”

The Department of Energy saw a 170 percent funding increase after the 2008 economic collapse. Only the departments of commerce and education saw higher increases.

Obama plans to release a budget proposal on Monday for the fiscal year that will begin in October. But he has yet to sign a budget resolution for this year because the previous Congress never had enough momentum to pass one. Instead, lawmakers approved a series of continuing resolutions that give government programs the same payout as in early 2010.

“It's hard to plan because we don't know whats coming, so we are just doing parts of things,” Lewis said.

The Department of Energy sent Lewis' project $22 million in 2010, but it's unclear how much of the $100 million still in the pipeline Lewis' team will actually receive. A Republican majority in the House wants to cut $1.27 billion in energy research between now and October.

The Obama administration doesn't seem intimidated. Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently announced the “SunShot Initiative,” awarding a total of $27 million to nine projects seeking to improve the consumption of solar energy.

Grants Are Big Part Of CalTech Culture

CalTech received 93 percent of its $332 million in research grants in 2010 from the federal government, according to a university official. As of Feb. 2010, CalTech had also received $33 million through American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants.

"Budget cuts will be challenging for all Americans, and research universities won't be exempt from these challenges,” Hall Daily, CalTech's Director of Government Relations, said in an e-mail.

CalTech lies in the district of Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Pasadena), who has stumped for the university and the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the past. Lewis said he last spoke to Schiff in December.

“I am committed to reducing the budget deficit, while ensuring that crucial investments necessary for future competitiveness, including science and technology, education and others, are not harmed,” Schiff said in a statement e-mailed to Neon Tommy. “Any additional investment in these fields will disproportionately help California -- the home of so much good science.”

The desire to cut research funding is not surprising, said John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna University

“Members of both parties in Congress are scared of taking on entitlement spending, and so by definition, discretionary spending is hit hard,” Pitney said. “The president's message is at war with itself as a result. It's hard to cut the deficit and expand research at the same time unless you touch Social Security and Medicare.”

Is There Value In Public Subsidies Of Energy Research?

Myron Ebell, the director of energy and global warming policy at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, said cuts to energy research should have started a long time ago.

“Since the Nixon administration in the 1970s, there's been a record of tens of billions of dollars spent on this research by the Department of Energy with little to show for it,” he said.

Ebell said the oil industry has advanced its drilling technology in that same period through investing its own money in research and hiring thousands of the most brilliant engineers. 

“Free markets quickly weed out the losers,” Ebell said. “They lose all their money and they're gone. Governments keep putting money into things that didn't work yesterday, don't work today and probably won't work tomorrow.”

Lewis said in the long run his project moves the needle in the positive direction as America strives for environmental security and energy independence. A 2004 study that found every $1 the government invested in energy research yielded $4 in energy efficiency supports his position.

"We actually are bold enough to know that the first prototype we build is going to fail," he told the Pasadena Star-News.

"We have an awesomely great project,” he said. “But government's got a greater problem.”

Reach executive producer Paresh Dave here. Follow him on Twitter: @peard33.



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